On a recent trip to London, I picked up one of these posters at the gift shop in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The strong graphic and message appealed to me.
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A blunt slogan and a simple image: these basic elements of persuasion, protest, propaganda or making a point have been used in tandem and to great effect for as long as anyone reading this has been alive. Presumably, these messages have always been received in a variety of ways. But these days, it seems, when a slogan and an image reach a significant audience, that’s not the end of the process. In fact it’s just the beginning.
For example, when red posters bearing the sans-serif slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” underneath a simple crown icon started catching on in Britain a few years back, Bex Lewis knew their provenance. Now an associate lecturer in history and media studies at the University of Winchester, Lewis wrote her Ph.D. thesis on British propaganda posters devised for the home front during World War II. The “Keep Calm” poster, meant to be distributed in the event of a German invasion, was extremely obscure for many decades. So she was interested, she recalls, to see it turning into “sort of a consumer item.”
That process began with a fluke: in 2000, Stuart and Mary Manley, owners of a shop called Barter Books in north England, found one of the original posters folded up in the bottom of a box of old books and framed it. Customers liked it, and eventually the Manleys decided to sell reproductions. “Part of it is that it does have this sort of intrinsic British feel about it,” Mary Manley says, adding that the poster evokes a “nostalgia for a certain British character, an outlook.”
On a less romantic note, the design is in the public domain, meaning it can be remade and sold by anybody. A British freelance television-production manager named Mark Coop, for one, decided it “would be a brilliant idea to put it on a T-shirt.” In 2006, he bought the domain name keepcalmandcarryon.com, and offers the slogan and design on a variety of goods, including cuff links and duffel bags. Around the same time, Victoria Smith, a San Francisco Bay Area design blogger and photographer, bought one of the Barter Books posters secondhand and ended up producing her own silk-screen “Keep Calm” prints in a variety of color variations that she sells on Etsy.com. Barter Books has added mugs and mouse pads to its lineup. (Relations among these sellers are not particularly friendly; each complains of copycats selling low-quality versions.)
It turned out that the “Keep Calm” merchandise resonated all over the world. “Germany’s really big on it, oddly enough,” Coop observes. The banking crisis, Smith adds, brought a wave of orders from people working for American financial firms (and, more recently, advertising agencies). In fact, the travails of the global economy seem to have given the slogan fresh relevance to many — as reassurance for some but as creative fodder for others. For instance, one T-shirt design tips the crown upside down and reads “Now Panic and Freak Out.”
Possibly the best-known response graphic was created by Matt Jones, a product designer with the British-based firm Schulze & Webb. He was “in a grumpy mood” when he happened to read an article in The Guardian about the “Keep Calm” trend. “It was full of this sort of British fatalism,” he recalls. Being of the mind-set that “we have to invent our way out of trouble,” he started sketching. His design — the slogan “Get Excited and Make Things” under a crown that includes wrenches — became a Web hit, leading to a T-shirt from Howies, a Welsh clothing brand, and a set of prints sold on 20×200.com; Mule Design in San Francisco is bringing out a version of the shirt in the U.S. (Jones has given his chunk of the proceeds to nonprofit groups.)